Perhaps a library is not the first place that comes to mind to offer groundbreaking public support for the LGBTQ community. But in the city of McAllen, the public library has done just that. With its mission to connect people with new ideas, Pride month at the library has been no different.
The leadership of Assistant Director of Public Services Roberto Zavala has helped the library go beyond simple book displays to mark the month-long commemoration of progress and struggle accomplished by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community to actively creating programming for library patrons to learn more about the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of us had been thinking about ‘Oh, could we do some kind of pride celebration? If it was just one night, would it be small? Would it be big? What could we do?’” recounted Reference Department Supervisor Elizabeth Hollenbeck. “And it kind of just didn’t come together until Roberto said ‘Yes, of course. Let’s do this. Let’s make it as serious as all of our other programs, and give it the same spotlight.’”
The result of this effort became the library’s first foray into a month-long programming in 2016, all done with collaboration and coordination from local LGBTQ organizations and community members. And although the library has had a presence at local LGBTQ events, having presentations offered to cover everything from the intersections of the LGBTQ community and immigration to a queer poetry workshop was eye-opening for some attendees.
“I remember last year the first event we had was with (Valley Aids Council), and they provided kind of history of the LGBTQ community. It was specific to the Valley. A lot of people really enjoyed their presentation because a lot of times, we don’t know what our own history is,” said Zavala.
Even though it had been a year since marriage equality had been made law, and LGBTQ people were being acknowledged and even accepted in mainstream culture and discourse, the library prepared itself with possible backlash to the introduction of their programming the best way they knew how.
To add more context, the City of McAllen offers no nondiscrimination policies to protect LGBTQ workers, students, and other residents. In fact, it could be said that the public library is the first public resource to take initiative to intentionally welcome LGBTQ residents.
“(We prepared) talking points that we had at all of our different service desks so that way if any patrons were looking at our calendar or found the sign and went like ‘Why would you have something like this?’ or whatever, staff aren’t feeling like (they’re being) put on the spot. So we put some talking points together,” said Hollenbeck.
“Let’s do this. Let’s make it as serious as all of our other programs, and give it the same spotlight.”
Despite the apprehension and preparation, the staff at the library can barely recall any negativity received from the RGV community at large.
“We were prepared for it, and I think as librarians, we’re always thinking about what could happen. I’m glad that that didn’t hold MPL back because I know it holds back a lot of library systems,” said Zavala. “Like, they don’t want to touch Pride Month because they’re afraid of the reaction the community is going to have. So I’m glad that didn’t hold us back.”
Assured from the overwhelmingly positive reactions from last year, the library has decided to go full-steam ahead with the second round of programming for Pride Month this year, even going as far as throwing virtual reality technology in the mix.
Equipped with a staffer who will be incorporating new technology available, patrons will now be able to attend any Pride parade from the comfort of their local library.
“In recent years, Google has been recording, with 360 cameras and things, and they’ve developed an app so you can use Google cardboard or whatever VR equipment that you have,” explained Hollenbeck. “So people in countries that aren’t able to celebrate or participate can through virtual reality and can kind of see what that’s like and feel some connection. We’re adapting our MP lab equipment to be able to show that.”
Besides offering views of whole pride parades for patrons, Hollenbeck has also been developing LGBTQ programming for the entire year through an LGBTQ book club.
“The focus on the Lavender Literary League is going to be exposing people to literature that is by, about, and for the LGBTQIA+ community,” said Hollenbeck. “So we’re looking for queer authors, books that tackle subjects that are important to the community, of course, in a variety of formats and styles.”
The genres the book club will go into will vary and plans to bring local queer authors to come speak to book club members is in the works. But besides becoming a place to discuss queer and trans subjects in books, staff hopes the Lavender Literary League becomes another meeting area for LGBTQ members of the RGV that is as accessible as the library is.
“It’s a group that will meet regularly. They don’t have to necessarily read the book, but it’s a place that they can come and socialize,” said Zavala. “And so I feel like that’s very important here in the Valley where you feel like you have a place that you can gather and talk to other people about different issues, even if they’re not book related.”
For all the work done to ensure that all members of the community are being seen, the library has begun to witness the fruits of their labor.
“There was an individual here who just happened to be here when we were announcing one of our pride programs, and so she went into the program. Later on, she spoke about how she didn’t even know the library was providing this,” recounted Zavala. “But she was in the building. And at the time she was looking for places that would be accepting of her. So I feel like stories like that outweigh any negative comment or any negativity that (may come) from the community.”
Upcoming pride events at the McAllen Public Library:
Tuesday, June 20 at 7:00 pm: Virtual Reality Pride Parade
Wednesday, June 21 at 7:00 pm: Aquí Estamos
Wednesday, June 28 at 7:00 pm: Lavender Literary League first meeting